Chapter Six: The Abyss
We stood on a rocky slope which descended — and then quickly disappeared — into a pleasant fog. It was as though the world had been upended and to walk further down into that valley would actually be to stride into clouds at dawn or dusk, backlit from beyond the horizon, glowing, pink. For there was no sun here, only the sky streaked green, red, yellow and black, and pink fog drawn from a bottle of pale wine.
Random turned the card away, replaced it in his deck, which he dropped into a pouch hanging from his belt.
“I do know this place. These are the borderlands, aren’t they?”
“Nobody is king here,” Random affirmed as he turned around, putting the valley to his back. Pointing in the other direction, he announced, “This way,” and began climbing.
Turning to join him, I caught sight of the tree. Big, unfathomably old, I recognized it right away.
Where it stood several yards off, the tree shivered, stirred a few of its branches. Looking up at the sound, I saw that the canopy of leaves and limbs extended over my head and well beyond. Like I said, big old tree.
“Come on, Corwin,” I heard Random call from behind me, “We’re on a mission, remember? Besides, all Ygg mostly does these days is snooze a lot. He’s not even awake right now, just tossing in his sleep.”
I shrugged and fell in step beside my brother. The going wasn’t too difficult. Still, we were quite a ways up the side of a mountain and the trail was steep.
“I liked it better back there,” I let Random know, as we neared a pass up ahead.
“’Cause you miss old Ygg?”
“Because this isn’t far from where Brand ambushed me and killed my horse. Too bad I couldn’t get close to him that time — would like to have finished it right there. Then a lot of things would have been…different.”
Random nodded, uttered just one word: “Deirdre.”
Frowning, I turned my eyes skyward. Already it had altered — yellow, orange and red now accompanied the band of black, and the green was gone.
“Deirdre, yes. But not just Deirdre. Jiggle things even a little, Deirdre lives. And I don’t run into Duke Borel. Allow me to rephrase that: I don’t run through
“Well, yes, but I’d also be closer to my son,” I said, voicing the regret uppermost in my thoughts.
As we moved up into the pass, the wind kicked up and blew at our backs, whipping our garments, our hair. And I thought of Merlin. The best I could say was that I’d kept my promise to him, bringing him back to the Great Pattern in Amber. He had walked it and come into his heritage as a prince of the blood, but I had hardly seen him since, only occasionally wondering what he might be up to. And now Random had told me Merlin had come to prefer Amber and Shadow to his native Chaos, going so far as to volunteer to go on missions for the crown. That is, for Random. Who by now was probably closer to my son than I was. Me bitter? No, since this state of affairs was no more, and no less, than I deserved. But, yes, there was regret. And now, thanks to Random, maybe also a chance to address that regret. Still, even Deirdre and Merlin did not encompass all I would change, if I could.
“There’s also the small matter of a new primal Pattern and an entirely new and separate existence spawned somewhere,” I continued. “Which no one can seem to find, including me.”
“So what? Who cares?”
We were well into the pass. Overhead, the sky was made up of strips of black and bright red, drenching the world in its ruddy, bloody light. The wind gusted, suddenly strong in places, not so much in others. I couldn’t help seeking some trace of my encounter with Brand. The carcass of Star was long gone, of course. Lying around the place somewhere, though, were the remains of a busted crossbow, if one knew where to look.
“Yeah, but why, Corwin?”
“Why do I care what happened to a universe — or a very large number of them — which I helped bring into being?”
“Why do you care that it exists at all? You wish it didn’t?”
“I — I don’t know. You’re right. But…it’s like you produce a capstone, a supreme work, such as, say, Rousseau’s The Dream
, and then somebody accidentally throws it out with the trash. That’s not a feeling you want.”
“Painting, by a master from the Shadow Earth of my exile.”
The puzzled expression didn’t go away.
“Features a naked chick on a couch.”
He nodded and smiled.
. So you’re talking about great art, stuff men make that stands the test of time. That lots of the time makes men stand up.”
Conceding the point, I said, “Yeah, like Woman Bitten by a Serpent
“Sculpture. Trust me, you’d love it.”
“Yeah, but would Vialle?”
After a moment’s consideration, recalling Clesinger’s provocative, and controversial, piece, I said, “She might.”
We had reached the other side of the pass. Our conversation had been pitched to overcome the buffeting wind, and now we began to leave that wind behind us as we headed down the slope on the other side. Below stretched a twilit valley under a jailbird sky of black and white stripes, holding luminous groves — clutches of silver-barked trees hung with silver leaves — towering needles of rock, white, gray, black, scattered about the hummocks, terraces and gleaming mist-streaked pools, sprays of pale wildflowers bursting here and there among bright silver grasses.
Random pointedly looked me over, stared at the valley, looked back at me again.
So I gave myself a quick once-over to see what was provoking his reaction. I was in my usual colors — on this occasion wearing black trousers with silver seams, a black cloak secured by a silver clasp in the shape of a rose, a gray jacket over a black shirt, silver boots, silver gloves tucked into (what else?) a belt woven of a dozen wide links of silver. Then, mimicking my brother, I took another gander at the valley. Just as it slowly began to dawn on me, I heard his chuckle.
“Hey, you match!”
I decided to let his ironic observation pass, because I remembered this place, too, where once I had nearly been caught in its spell.
“Is this some kind of a joke?” I asked. “I came through here on my ride to Chaos, not long before meeting Brand“ — I jerked my head toward the pass behind us — “back there.”
“No joke,” said Random, pointing toward something at the near end of the valley. “Unless you think my baby is a joke. And then I’ll be pissed. Talk about works of art. From where I’m at, unless it’s women or music, the Wing Thing
is as close as you can get.”
Then I saw it, tethered to a pinnacle of rock about half-way between the pass and the valley floor. The first thing I thought of was a manta ray, minus the eyestalks and tail. Which led immediately to my next impression: whatever it was floating a few feet off the ground, it resembled most strongly a fictional vehicle I recalled from an old science fiction television show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
. For it looked like a cousin of the Flying Sub, except for the fact this version was of some shiny black material. It could just as easily have passed for a UFO, a novelty-sized dustpan, or some exotic sort of kite.
“Well, what would you call it?”
“I don’t know. What the hell is it?”
“A prototype. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Ahead, points of light shone bright and unwinking at indeterminate distances — bits of brilliance caught in prisons of alien chrome? As we went forward and our view of the prospect shifted, the distances between ourselves and everything else became uncertain. Angles and lines-of-sight went strangely awry here, everywhere a vanishing point leading…somewhere else, so that none could be trusted. Where there was bare ground it had the consistency of half-dried clay, stuff that would smudge before its poor cohesion would cause it to break, pale white material reminiscent of bone.
The distance to Random’s toy was farther than it first seemed. Before we got there, it became obvious that it was under guard. Perhaps a score or more of helmed figures in full armor, sporting the device of a white unicorn on a green field, variously stood, squatted or sat in a perimeter about the floating mystery. They jumped to attention at the sight of us, saluting, relaxing only a little at Random’s, “At ease.”
The object which, from a distance, I'd guessed was as big as a house, was definitely bigger than your average home, and hovered silently about five feet off the ground. Random crouched beneath it and made for its center. Still dubious, I followed. As soon as I bent underneath, I noticed a pair of canoe-shaped skids fixed to the kite/dustpan/UFO's skin. The belly of this big black bird had a button, actually a hatch, which at the moment hung open. Random straightened, then hauled himself up and out of sight. Wondering what any of this had to do with plans we’d already discussed, I did the same.
There was a ladder set into the side of the hatchway. We climbed through the tube up to another hatch, also open, and clambered up onto the deck of a wide cabin. The space had a teardrop shape. Where it narrowed there were six bunks, some storage lockers, and a wheel-locked door at the end. Opposite the narrow end an array of controls spread below the arc of a windshield made up of five large transparent plates; facing that setup were two padded seats bolted to the floor. Four more seats were bolted to the floor behind the first two. Ranged in the space between fore and aft, mostly along panels set into the walls, were wheels, guages, levers, switches, tubes and dials. A nook on the left contained a small galley. The ladder continued on up to the ceiling directly above, where another hatch was mounted. A soft yellow-orange glow, like firelight, passed into the cabin through translucent bars set in the floor and ceiling, radiating out from the hatches like spokes of a wheel.
Standing in the middle of that cabin, turning slowly as I tried to take it all in, in wonder I asked, “I repeat: What the hell is this?”
“Follow me. Gotta show you how she flies.”
There were a couple of big fellows lounging in the two forward seats. Their feet were propped up on the consoles just below the windshield. At the sound of our steps on the wood-and-metal flooring, their feet had quickly dropped to the floor. Hearing Random’s voice, they stood up, turned, delivered rigid salutes.
“Hey, I know these guys!” burst from me, as I took note of their seven-foot stature, red hides, pointed ears and cat-like eyes. Unlike the warriors below, these two were not wearing helmets.
Random returned their salute.
“Mur, Brul. My brother, Lord Corwin, and I are taking the ship on her maiden flight. You know what to do. Get her ready.”
They nodded, replied in stereo with, “As you command,” and got busy with the mechanisms built into the walls.
“Random, those are Bleys’ guys, from Avernus. What are they doing here? And what’s this about a maiden flight?”
Random had already taken the seat on the right.
“The ship’s ready right now. They’re just double-checking everything. Have to show you how to work the controls before I go.”
A dozen responses leaped to mind. I chose one.
“Okay, but what’s this got to do with my mission, where I’m following up on Merlin and Martin?”
Random pursed his lips while looking up at something on the ceiling, then regarded me again.
“Nothing at all, I guess. It’s a combined mission.”
He gestured to the unoccupied chair.
“Have a seat.”
“You know,” I grumbled, stepping forward and lowering myself into the other chair. “Kingship has done nothing to reduce your cockiness. If anything, it’s made it worse.”
He chuckled, eying the controls.
“Yeah, I hear the same crap out of Gérard. Even though I let him run Amber half the time. That’s gratitude for you.
“Okay, this bird’s bionic. She has turbine-driven props — sorry, the fuel’s a secret — but a lot of the action happens in the wings…”
Short version: Random showed me how to fly the Wing Thing
. It turned out the airship was the result of a series of missions carried out by Merlin and Martin, basically raiding Shadow for high-tech notions with military applications for the immortal city. The problem, however, always is that technology which works elsewhere tends to fail in Amber. The solution had been a lighter-than-air concept incorporated into a lifting-body design, based on things known to fly around Amber: birds and clouds. The Wing Thing
was a cross between an ornithopter — the tips of the fin-like wings tilted, twisted, undulated, even flapped — and a dirigible. She made use of cells of thin superstrong material (another secret Random declined to share) wrapped around hard vacuum (for buoyancy), fore and aft ballonets, both water and shot types of ballast (for emergency ascents), and, of course, turboprops.
At Random’s order, the lines were loosed and our craft drifted free. Since there was no easy way around the mountains, we went up, up, up and over them. The wind fought us the whole way; after that, the journey got easier.
“So when did you decide Amber could use air power?” I wondered out loud.
“When the wyvern-riders from the Black Road had Eric’s back up against the wall.”
“Didn’t ever get around to mentioning the idea to him, though.”
“Nope, never did.”
He laughed, and I joined him. We were quiet for awhile after that. Our mood was subdued, perhaps, by the uniform gray fog below, stretching nearly as far as the eye could see, its surface gently ribbed and rippled the way the sand of a beach can be where the waves fall back into the sea. Or perhaps it was all that lay unspoken, everything that came after the laughter, that ordained a momentary silence.
Random punctuated his own reverie with a rap of his knuckles on the edge of the dash.
“Trumps don’t work very well around here, you know.”
“And the charts we have for Chaos —”
“None too reliable?” I hazarded, scanning the featureless expanse of fog for the twentieth time.
“About as reliable as that compass,” he said, glancing at the needle on the dashboard, which bounced and jogged in what looked like a private game of spin-the-bottle.
“What about gyros, or some sort of inertial compass?”
“Right. Okay, so what else?”
“Nothing else. You can take the controls.”
He shoved a lever in the middle of the console all the way to the left and nodded to me. The lever had just locked the controls; our autopilot. I threw the lever back over into the unlocked position, took hold of the controls. I’d flown before, though not nearly to the extent Random had. So I did the obvious and tried keeping the nose up, sighting on the horizon.
“Higher,” Random instructed.
I threw him a quizzical look.
“The horizon’s different here. Chaos is not a round world like most places. It’s not exactly flat either, but close enough. Pick a mountaintop.”
“I can’t see
Truth was that I could just make out the dark blur of a mountain range up ahead, though it didn’t look much higher than the sea of colorless mist below. Trying out his suggestion, I pretended an Everest stood out from the middle of those far-off peaks and steered for it.
“Better. So why have you come to the Courts?”
“To visit my brother Bleys.”
“Does Bleys know your plans?”
“Yes and no. We were in touch awhile back, when I let him know I’d be coming. But he had no idea when.”
“Hoping to see him during my visit, but my main purpose is to see how Bleys is doing. My mission is diplomatic, not personal.”
“Okay, but you’re ordered to turn around and go home.”
“As someone assigned a diplomatic post by the King of Amber, only the King of Chaos has the authority to review that appointment. I’ll only depart under Swayvill’s order. Look, Random, I understand the mission. I just don’t understand why you’re sending me instead of Caine.”
“They don’t like Caine.”
“I don’t think they’re too crazy about me either. Killed Borel. Got bypassed in the succession, spoiling their plans to put Merlin on Amber’s throne. Earned the hatred of a Princess of Chaos. I’m not the biggest fan of Caine myself, but me? I make Caine look good.”
Random was shaking his head.
“No, you don’t get it. They expect
Caine to do something sneaky. You and Bleys, they know, teamed up against Eric. What the two of you did was stupid, but it took real balls. They’ll believe you volunteered to make this trip. Caine? They’ll know it was an assignment.”
“You’re holding out on me,” I suggested, sparing him a brief glance. He had pulled a kind of tray out of the console and spread a chart over it. Our friends were strapped into two of the seats behind us. I turned a little more to see how they were doing. One was plainly bored, eyes only half open, dozing, while the other was completely asleep. The troops from Avernus truly were fearless — napping while aboard an experimental vehicle headed straight into the most dangerous place in existence.
I wondered if they’d been trained on the parachutes stowed in the back.
Swinging my gaze back to Random, I saw him turn toward me and shrug.
“You’ve got more on the ball than Caine. Sneaky is what he does. They know how he did you and Bleys, that he can’t be trusted.”
“They also know I finished off Borel the only way I had time for: quick. And dirty. I’m a dishonorable s.o.b.”
“Only to Borel’s friends. Quite a few in the Courts were glad to see him go. He’d killed a lot of people in duels.”
It seemed there was still something, either something Random had overlooked, or something he was deliberately withholding. I had my doubts, but put them aside for the obvious reason. Nor were my misgivings lessened by the knowledge that Random had doubtless anticipated that reason. So I said it out loud, to let him know that I knew.
“Well, I would like to know what’s been happening with Merlin and Martin as much as anyone. More, no doubt. So it looks like you made the right choice in sending me.”
He pretended to look at something off to his right, but not before I saw the smile.
The mountains were no longer so far away. Distant peaks could be made out. Either our swift passage was due to the peculiarities of the regions adjoining the Courts, or the airship flew faster than I thought. My guess was the former.
Leaning forward, I tried for a better look at the local sky. The dark swath seemed to have expanded, no longer split into separate black bands, and might have contained motes of light — hard to tell. The green belt had acquired the faintest tinge of blue, while the red had bifurcated and been replaced by a band of pumpkin orange and another of a subtle shade of crimson. We had come far.
Random noticed the direction of my gaze.
“Making good time,” he noted.
“Which means we haven’t got long. So tell me: How long since you last heard from Martin?”
“About a year — which isn’t as long as you think. You know how differently time moves here.”
“But you got worried just the same.”
“Only because it looked like they were getting close to something. Besides Bleys, Caine and I were their only contacts.”
“And you had Caine try to reach them, then tried yourself?””
Random stared at nothing in particular, but his posture, which had perceptibly become more taut, communicated frustration, tension.
“No dice on both tries. That’s when we brought Fiona in. We didn’t give her the whole story, just asked her to see what she could do.”
“Which was nothing.”
Next to me there was a pause on the other side of the conversation.
“It was something? What did she find out?”
“It might as well have been nothing. She made contact through a Trump, which faded right away. No words. Don’t think she even got an image.”
“You didn’t mention that before. Which one did she reach?”
He unstrapped himself, stood up, leaned forward in the narrow space between the two seats, holding onto his.
“Remember. Swayvill knows I’m trying to help him, but doesn’t know how. It’s better that way. But he’s no fool. He’ll probably guess you’re part of whatever I’m trying to do, but he’s savvy enough not to let on.”
“So he won’t be of much help to me.”
“Expect him to be downright nasty. Not hard for him to do. Doesn’t much like you, anyway.”
“Thanks a lot.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, gave it a quick squeeze, let his hand fall.
I heard him riffle through his deck, seeking a Trump.
Without turning, keeping my eyes on the prize, I asked, “Where are you headed?”
“Back to Ygg. Gotta get Bleys’ boys home.”
“And these two?”
“Part of Bleys’ personal staff at the Courts. He’s really part of the scene there. Our expert on court relations.”
“On the subject of relations,” I began, seizing the opportunity to put forward a question I had been meaning to ask, “any new ones I should know about? You make it sound like Bleys is a fixture in that place. So…?”
Behind me, I heard him laugh.
“Don’t know. Nobody kisses and tells any more.”
“Can’t imagine why.”
“Corwin, stay in touch, be careful, and…”
I turned for one last look at him. He was holding the Trump before him and the air there trembled as it wavered between two places at once; the connection had been made.
“And good luck.”
Then he took a step toward his new reality, leaving me with mine.
A long level plain, largely shrouded in tendrils of the ever-present fog, stretched toward a low line of hills beyond which stood the mountains, now much more clearly defined. Noting how little disturbed by wind the mists below were, I locked the controls once more. And brought out the family album, which is to say my Tarot deck. Behind me, Harpo and Zeppo were still out of it, so I was effectively alone. I dealt out the cards.
Brand came up first, slim, red-haired, in his green, sitting a white horse built for speed and not so much for strength, jagged mountains at his back, a sky torn between sun and storm. The small portrait did its job very well, effortlessly conveying a sense of his mercurial personality. He was gone now, though, and I was glad; he had cost us too dearly.
Eric turned up, too: black hair, blue eyes, big, strong, confident, dressed in the colors he preferred — black gloves, wide black belt, big black boots, leather jacket, leather leggings, favoring red in the rest of his attire, in the lining of his cloak, in the scabbard for his sword. My feelings were mixed. We had long been enemies, but he had done Amber proud, dying on Kolvir’s slopes while personally leading troops against foes the like of which we’d never seen before. Nor was it likely we’d ever see their like again, that war having finally been won.
I hesitated to turn over the next card. Would this be a gathering of the dead? If so, then either my father Oberon would be next, or it would be my beloved sister.
But it was Merlin, my son.
Like his father, Merlin was fond of gray and silver, clad in a gray jacket, boots gray and bossed with silver. And, like me, his hair was dark, though his eyes were blue, almost gray. There were other differences beside his choice of purple shirt and burgundy trousers, or the color of his eyes. He had a lighter build than I, for one, and wore no weapon. He was not cast from the warrior mold, like Benedict, Bleys, Eric, Gérard and myself. Yet he had sallied forth on dangerous assignments on behalf of Random and Swayvill; he had courage. He struck me as more of a thinker than I had been at his age, more intrigued by what lay behind the forces shaping our universe than by what power could be gained from them.
I wondered if he was still alive.
Touching the card, I felt its coldness come and go. Here, so close to the heart of Chaos, the Trumps could not be trusted, as Random had reminded me. Yet the cold was there, the sensation that this was not really a pasteboard at all, but a door which had been left open, letting in the chill from some unknown “outside” — unknown till one looked through the door. I held the card, stared at it, willed it to change, to lose some of its idealization in a trade for greater reality. My mind desperately sought for the mind of another. There? Did the outlines stir just then, did the image shift, just for a moment? Whatever it was, it had the quality of something glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, there one instant, gone the next, never truly seen.
Yet it had seemed a connection might have been made. Now I could not be sure, as I wondered to what degree my impressions might have been influenced by wishful thinking.
I put the cards away, no longer wanting the glimpse of the future they might afford. I had not liked the direction the reading seemed to have been taking, anyway.
Instead, I came back to another concern at the top of my agenda. Dreams. I nourished a foolish hope: that the Courts of Chaos might hold some key I could use to unlock the secret of my dreams. Chaos was older than Amber, had a richer history, knew things Amber didn’t know. When I had taken on the assignment Random had given me, I will admit I had had at least one ulterior motive in accepting it. Beyond my wish to learn more of what had befallen Merlin and Martin had been my desire to resolve the dilemma of dreams that moved around swords and other objects, even going to the trouble of attacking fully awake princes with feline fangs and real big kitty-cat claws. Maybe in the Courts I could find the answers that had eluded me in Tir-na Nog'th?
Enough. Break-time was over and I needed to get back to the task at hand. I forced myself to focus again on the present, on where I was going.
The view through the windshield showed how close the foothills were. The mountains looming beyond were ancient, rounded, worn. Even as I unlocked the console and took the controls back in my hands, the vehicle was struck by sudden buffets of wind. Not so strong as to pose a real problem just yet, but a warning of worse to come.
Things were getting too interesting, too quickly.
My two friends stirred, responded almost at once.
“We need to gain altitude to get over those mountains! See what you can do.”
Swearing softly, I worked the controls. I was a lousy choice for a test pilot, especially after only a few quick lessons. I’d flown a Nieuport 17 biplane in Belgium a long, long time ago, taking to the air again much later in the Piper Cherokee Arrow I’d enjoyed on weekends in upstate New York. And that was all, as far as my flying resumé was concerned. I had no direct knowledge of lighter-than-air flight and, in comparison to Random, was barely a pilot at all.
Though I’d only the vaguest idea what needed to be done, my two airmen understood what I wanted and made it happen. They turned cranks and worked something that, as best as I could tell, was related to the jack you use when changing a tire.
Whatever they did, it worked. The Wing Thing
rose toward the bizarre turning, churning sky. We were above the hills now, rising fast. As pilot, I did as Random had shown me, canting the flexible wing-tips and adjusting the pitch of the props. Our ascent was swift enough that we would clear the mountain peaks before us. The only problem was that, now that winds were kicking up, my talent for steering the airship was roughly equivalent to the sort of talent that would earn you thrown tomatoes and rotten fruit on the old Vaudeville circuit. If I got us booed offstage under current circumstances, that step off of stage left was a real long one which would give us all big lumps and bruises. Fatal ones.
Up we went just the same, and it really did feel like we were riding on some giant’s kite. Steering the airship became even more problematic. There was only one available solution: more power. With an eye on the fuel guage, I throttled up the props.
The distinctive sky of Chaos was more evident on the other side of the mountains. Half of the heavens were as black as outer space and, like outer space, full of stars. These stars were not stationary scintillating points of light, however; they expanded with stunning brilliance, then dimmed to dying embers, all while shooting about, twirling, spiraling — a celestial fireworks display. The other half of the sky was just as disconcerting, made up of writhing snakes of color, a twisting tortured rainbow of green, gray, red, brown, violet, orange and blue. As a belt of mulberry was born, a belt of chartreuse would be absorbed, slices and strands of the spectrum blending and separating like ribbons spun on a manic maypole, or swaths of cloth woven and unwoven on a tireless loom. Because that crazy sky seemed to turn about a point directly overhead, instinctively I assumed it was located some unimaginable distance away. Yet at times some of those colors filled the air right where I was, shifting, shaking ropes of colored fog, vibrating, pulsing, seeming somehow alive. Always moving at random, always in motion, only the rotation of the psychedelic wheel in the sky seeming regulated, foreordained.
A pilot might find the sky of Chaos a distraction. I know I did.
We rapidly crossed the barren plateau on the other side of the mountains. As we made the crossing, I judiciously experimented with the controls, endeavoring to get a better feel for flying a saucer.
The wasteland ran for more than forty miles. Yet we were soon across it and upon the mountains on the other side. This time we did better getting over them. And, when we did, I knew what we’d see before we saw it.
The battle plain before the abyss.
Before us swept a desolate, cratered expanse, lifeless, studded with rocky outcrops and gray hills, riddled with rills, ridges, sudden valleys — a lunar landscape. That jumbled broken terrain went on for another fifty miles before running into a final uplift of scattered mountains, hills and heights. And beyond that? Nothing, only blackness and space, that from which all things came, to which all things return.
Then I saw something I had not anticipated.
Up from the mountains below, from caves and crevasses, rose a great storm of wings. As the ominous black cloud achieved greater height, grew closer, Mur, Brul and I could see that many of the winged creatures bore riders on their backs.
And then I knew them, of course.
The half-beast, half-men brandishing cutlasses, seated in saddles on their dragon-like mounts were the same who had slain Eric on that fateful day. Dying, he had given his death curse to these, the wyvern-riders. But his curse hadn’t been necessary. For that was the day I had brought guns to Amber, stymieing the forces of Chaos even as they had readied themselves for their final assault and conquest.
With all that running through my head, I took a look around me, seeking weapons. Only then did I recall Random touching briefly on the subject as he’d given me the Readers’ Digest version of how to fly the Wing Thing
. The airship carried no armament. She was a prototype, after all, whose maiden flight would take her straight to our former enemy’s places of power. Though Swayvill and the rest in the Courts were not daft and would right away understand the implications of the ship, we would not provoke them by openly displaying her as a weapon.
Today I was wearing a blue helmet, without even the benefit of rubber bullets. Where’s a NATO when you need one?
Yet I was not completely powerless. I still had my Trumps and, for whatever it might be worth, the stone from Tir-na Nog’th. With my left hand, I touched the diamond, attempting to commune with it in much the same way I would reach through a Trump. If there was a connection between myself and the gem, if I were in some way attuned to whatever lay within it, then I would feel something. Closing my eyes, I sought for that other sense, that other seeing. And, yes, there was something. Different from the Jewel of Judgment, but real enough, all right. The power was there.
Opening my eyes again, I prepared for the attack to come. Evasive maneuvers were still an option. Could wyverns fly at the same maximum altitude as the Wing Thing
? We would soon find out.
They didn’t attack.
What happened instead was that our airship was flanked on either side and, for want of a better word, herded toward the Courts. As that was where I wanted to go, anyway, I didn’t mind. We had just acquired a military escort, that’s all.
So, with the wind behind us, wyverns and their riders on either hand, we glided over the battle plain.
Then we were over the abyss itself.
Translucent roadways drifted above the chasm, flexible strips which barely seemed substantial. Indistinct entities moved upon them. Below them the abyss opened upon an infinity of darkness and jumping, swirling, free-wheeling stars. I was assailed by a nearly overwhelming sense of vertigo, as I had been on the other occasion I had made this crossing. It was as if the real sky lay below my feet, while the yin-yang/color-wheel overhead was the surface of some madman’s dream of Jupiter. Time and gravity behaved strangely in this place. Perhaps the illusion was no illusion at all.
Up ahead jutted a fantastic horn of black rock, its summit mesa-like, staggered with level places like shallow steps descending to some sacred pool. It looked volcanic, like Devil’s Mountain or Ship Rock, a cathedral of stone floating in the abyss. Seeming to grow like a natural formation up from the nearer edge, like a petrified Sequoia, its roots obsidian, ruby, sapphire and topaz, soared a mighty spindle of glass. Beyond it shone elegant sculptures of ice, walls glowing softly with light and color. The structures were not anchored to anything, seeming to float on the surface of a quicksilver lake. Sifting through the scene like dust-motes which appeared and disappeared were transient lights, untrustworthy will-o’-the-wisps. Like soap-bubbles, some brushed against structures and stalagmites, seemed to burst in slow-motion, spilling a dying liquid radiance on this wall or that crag, so that many things here were limned with phosphorescence which would evaporate, dissipate, or drain away, only to be renewed again minutes or hours later by the next ethereal collision.
For this was Mount Melgem, overlooked by Thelbane, Swayvill’s ageless Tower of Glass, home to powers — and secrets — so venerable that their beginning had long since been forgotten, if in fact they had ever had a beginning. The Shadowlands at this nether end of existence were but the playthings of the eerie lords who dwelt here, weavers of dreams, shapers of fire, spinners of matter and energy whose raw materials might well be nothing at all. The everchanging city of luminous ice filled its center as would lava domes and cinder cones within a huge caldera. And some of those domes and cones could have passed for temples, telescope observatories or pleasure palaces set on the summit of some otherworldly volcano. They were lotus flowers adrift in a slow shining contemplation of creation.
They were the Courts of Chaos.
Abruptly, and for no reason I could determine, our honor-guard, constantly uttering raucous shrieks over a substrate of guttural chanting that I took to be war-cries or even a battle-hymn, exploded with a collective scream of terror. This gave way to a wild and furious beating of wings. They flew off in all directions — the wyverns, their riders, and the gigantic razor-beaked birds accompanying them — chaff scattered by a whirlwind.
Looking around, glancing skyward, I could see nothing to cause this sudden panic. I was mystified.
Then I looked down.
Something was stirring in the blackness below. The darkness was writhing, twisting, seeming the unwinding of an immense coil, galactic in scale, visible by how it blotted out the glints and glares permeating the spark-shot void. Crescents of purple incandescence appeared, glowing like neon scimitars, electrical arcs infused with astronomical energies.
The chill that touched the back of my neck kept on going, moving down the length of my spine at goose-bump speed.
The ears of my two friends lay flat against their scalps, their vertical pupils having gone wide. Even the fearlessness of the holy warriors of Avernus had its limits.
I shoved the throttle for the props all the way forward. Moving the wheel-like pitch control, I adjusted the positions of the props. Working the levers for the wings, I reset the angles at which they flexed. The Wing Thing
was now in a dive and on a collision course with two of the see-through strips of floating road. The gauzy bridges across the void seemed to intersect below, one hovering perhaps a hundred yards above the other.
If we missed the undulating strands and kept on going, the situation didn’t improve much. We’d impact on the cliff below Thelbane. That is, if whatever was rising from the abyss didn’t reach us first.
Doubtless believing I’d lost my mind, Brul and Mur howled.
Though concentrating on my main objective, making adjustments with the controls in order to reach our destination as quickly as possible, I couldn’t resist repeated glances at the darkness below and to our right. Where something very large was unwinding, growing ever larger and seeming to move toward us.
As we entered the space just above the crossroads, I pulled us out of the dive. We weren’t far from the cliff-face now, but the air-currents I’d noticed lifting the flying bridges also lifted us. We even got an extra boost when we flew past the roads, which had partially blocked the thermals. At the same time, I released our lead-shot ballast. We shot up suddenly, a balloon released underwater, seeming almost to graze the cliff as its caves and ledges dropped past us.
We raced up alongside the walls of the Tower of Glass. And I felt relief then, reasonably sure we’d be safe within the Courts in mere moments, well ahead of whatever swam in the abyss. (And, yes, a part of myself looked askance back at me, bemused: Safe within the Courts?)
I spared one final look for that which had scattered the wyvern-riders, as the wind bore us to one side of Thelbane.
Far below — though nowhere near far enough — a swollen red sun had come into being, traced with yellow-white lines of force, its center a burning paradox of dark violet so intense it hurt to look upon it. Darkness shuttered across it, blocking its fearful and disturbing radiance, then retreated again to reveal the great and terrible orb once more.
It was an eye.
We rounded the tower, swooping and dropping, an enormous black seagull blown in from some unspeakable gulf. The props were thrown into reverse, air was let into the ballonets and I used the trick Random had taught me for using flexes of the wings to stabilize the craft, so it could circle a fixed point. We spiraled down into a courtyard of colored pillars, each unique and distinct from the rest. Thin beams of light of various colors criss-crossed the air, an overgrown cat’s cradle woven on vast many-fingered hands, a web of multicolored yarn. Rivulets here and there ran through the place, following grooves and trenches cut in the stone. Glowing fish leaped from the waters, stretched their fins to greater length, took to the air. The idea for the Wing Thing
might have been born right here.
We hit the ground with a lurch, bounced up, struck a pillar, drifted sideways, approached the ground again. By now, figures were emerging from the tower. Luminous paths, rivers of light, ran farther on into the Courts, and there was movement on these also as inhabitants converged on Thelbane. I shouted to Mur and Brul to do whatever Random had shown them. They released lines, which snaked down toward the ground. Meanwhile, I managed to steady the ship somewhat, so that she was slowly circling one corner of the garden of water, light and stone.
Limbs — not all of them human — laid hold of the lines, lashed them to things, hauled us down. I shut everything off. The fuel (whatever it was) was nearly spent. Didn’t look like there’d be a return flight. That was fine by me, so long as I could say I’d lived through the experience.
Unstrapping myself, feeling the ship rocking slightly under my feet as I stood, I turned to address my crew.
“You two have done well, and you have my gratitude. I do not know what waits below, so you must remain here. If all goes well, I will have Lord Bleys send for you. Good-bye for now.”
Not knowing what might come, I saluted them. They returned the gesture, and I opened the hatch, climbed down the ladder. At the bottom, I threw open the lower hatch-door and jumped to the ground.
There was a large squid in front of me. Several of his (her? its?) tentacles were wrapped around one of the mooring lines. And, while I stood for a moment transfixed by the sight of him, I’d swear he winked at me. Then I turned to see who else had shown up for the party. There were a number of half-men — half human and half lion, for instance, a fellow who reminded me of Egypt and pyramids — and many mostly human folk distorted in odd ways, such as the rather elongated gentleman who rested one taloned long-fingered hand on the hatch-door. Tattooed hides were clearly popular, as were blue skin and green skin. There were also quite a few albinos, not to mention a few very large men — ten to twelve feet tall, so call them giants — each sporting a pair of big claw-like hands and a single eye. A beautiful woman with glistening green skin flecked with gold caught my eye — turning her head, she met my gaze with her own bulbous golden eyes.
A human, about my size, was pushing through the crowd. A red cloak swept behind him, but almost everything else he wore was some shade of orange or another, his jewelry all of gold and displaying a preference for big colorful gems. Fiery red were his hair and beard, and I knew him at once.
He was grinning as he threw his arms around me in a hearty embrace that was almost a bear-hug. He stepped back, keeping his hands on my shoulders, studying me a moment, then looked up at the Wing Thing
“Random said you’d come, but I did not really believe him. He said nothing of your coming in, in a —”
“In a hybrid dreamed up by the Brothers Montgolfier and Wright? Not my idea, but it got me here. Listen, two of your troops are inside and, I think, a bit freaked out—”
“Later.” Moving just his eyes, he directed my attention to our welcoming party. “You are no doubt hungry and thirsty—”
“And tired. You forgot to mention tired.”
“Come with me now, then. Your sky-ship will not be molested; you are now under my protection.”
He threw one arm about me and marched us through the crowd of cyclopean giants, albinos, squids, and sphinxes. And past one lovely girl with very large eyes.
Copyright © 2008 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved
Labels: Beginning, Random